Passover and Avodah be-Gashmiyut

Reading my new Haggadah, I am struck by how it depicts Hasidism as an attempt to bring Jewish popular practice into the ambit of traditional Jewish metaphysics and Kabbalah. Haggadah Siach Tzadikim (2010) collects “beautiful words of jest from the mouths of saints” on the supposition that these puns and funny stories contain holy allusions.

Siach Tzadikim undoubtedly reflects popular culture in contemporary Hasidism. What’s more doubtful is whether it reflects historical truth. Be that as it may, the striking stories sparkle with an impulse to sanctify popular practice which is notably absent from other Jewish discourses. For example, this puzzling anecdote about the Hakal Yitzchak of Spinka, who died in Auschwitz in 1944, seems redolent with a strange desire to impute cosmic significance to silly errors.

The was once a country man who had an old Haggadah. Before vehi sheamdah where it says “cover the matzah and lift the cup (kos)” his Haggadah printed “cover the matzah and lift the foot (fus).” The country man didn’t realize the error and wasn’t discerning, so when he got to this piece, he covered the matzah and lifted his foot and said vehi sheamdah. The holy Hakal Yitzchak often spoke in Kabbalistic pilpul about the effect this man’s sincerity had in heaven.

The Kabbalistic explanation of this silly custom is somewhat laborious to explain. It’s one of the most notable of many stories in Siach Tzadikim justifying and sanctifying popular practices. Furthermore, Siach Tzadikim speaks about the custom of Hasidic masters to seek out these popular practices in a form of ethnography. For example, the current Tosher Rebbe relates that his grandfather would send his sons to watch the seder of various ignorant peasants to find the significance in their mistakes. Another story focuses on a revelation visited upon R. Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev. He was told to seek out a certain Chaim Trager whose seder made an impact in the heavenly realms. R. Levi Yitzchak arrived, only to find a man in a drunken stupor. Having found out that Passover meant 8 days with no whiskey, Chaim had gone to drink 8 days worth of whiskey that morning. His wife then tried to wake him for the seder and he replied:

What do you want from me?! I’m an am haaretz the son of an am haaretz. All I know is that our ancestors were in exile and God redeemed them. Now we are also in exile, and God will redeem us too.

Afterwards he greedily gobbled down the seder food and returned to his drunken stupor.

A final story deals with Isaac of Radvill (1751-1835) who sent out his wife to the well to get water for handwashing on the Seder night. When she didn’t return he went out to see what was up and discovered the entire town

Looking into the window of one Jew to see how he said the Haggadah…he went to see what had attracted this great crowd and saw that this Jew said one page of the Haggadah such as mah nishtanah and then read a page of Lamentations and this was entertaining everyone. Obviously, this fellow didn’t understand the words and had come to mix up the pages of his Haggadah and his book of Lamentations and so come seder night, he read with great feeling whatever was written there. The Holy Saint of Radvill exclaimed that the entire heavenly court came to hear this simple, sincere rendition of the Haggadah and thus, he was unable to move from the window, observing this holy spectacle.

Another practitioner of holy ethnography was S. Ansky. Nathaniel Deutsch’s new book The Jewish Dark Continent describes Ansky’s ethnographic program in the Pale of Settlement collecting customs, songs and Hasidic tales as a secularized form of Hasidism. Indeed, Ansky cut the figure of a very strange Hasid. Deutsch tells us he wore “long black kapote (coat) of a Hasid but” came with “the manners of an assimilated Russian Jewish intellectual.”  Ansky compelled the members of the expedition to

put out their cigarettes on the Sabbath, when smoking is forbidden, according to Jewish law; and compelling them to attend services in the small prayer houses and synagogues they visited, all in an effort…to have them “act Jewish”

Dissenting from the negative views of Hasidism among the Jewish intelligentsia, Ansky saw it as “an organically Jewish form of Populism in its own right.”

Over time, Ansky came to see the Hasidic movement as an inspiration for his own emerging vision of Jewish ethnography and the Hasidim themselves as proto- ethnographers who could serve as indigenous models for the network of collectors he hoped to establish in communities throughout the Pale of Settlement…

These pious Jews also liked to find a mystical- religious meaning in perfectly ordinary non- Jewish expressions. Rather than possessing a spark of divinity, as the Hasidim believed, Ansky argued in The Jewish Ethnographic Program that songs, tales, and, indeed, all Jewish folk traditions possessed a spark of the Jewish people’s creative spirit or soul. Consequently, for Ansky it was never enough to collect representative examples of a particular type of song, tale, or amulet. Instead, for Jewish ethnography to perform the redemptive function that Ansky envisioned for it, each and every Jewish folk tradition had to be collected and elevated, as it were, by representing it in a new, cultural context, such as a museum exhibition, theatrical play, or encyclopedia entry.

Just as importantly, the Hasidic movement emphasized the importance of materiality— broadly understood to include dance, music, eating, and other bodily expressions, as well as physical objects, such as clothing and relics— as a means for achieving higher spiritual states. This doctrine, known in Hebrew as avodah be-gashmiyut (worship in corporeality), served as a precedent for Jewish ethnography’s focus on the material culture of the common Jewish folk.

The Hasidic masters anticipate the popular thrust of Ansky’s ethnography. Ansky shared their focus on sanctifying the mundane. However, the Hasidim thought the mundane needed to be sanctified via reference to a third, transcendent term. Ansky thought that the sum of all these mundane things turned out to be the transcendent term. Thus, the immanentizing discourse of Hasidut is perfected. Its not that God is really close, that “God wants the heart.” Rather, God just is that which is really close. Both the Hasidic masters and Ansky share a common focus as avodah be-gashmiyut is transposed into materialism.

If the common ground between Ansky and the Hasidim was avodah be-gashmiyut then the material for that avodah had to be good material. Thus, both Ansky and the Hasidim evince a faith in the Jewish people. However the avodah is not so much about the perfectability of the Jews (getting Jews to keep more Jewish rituals, become socialists or even collect more material culture stuff) as it is about perspective. Avodah be-gashmiyut is an argument against idealism (avodah be-ruchniyut) from simple facts. All the stuff idealism claims to give us is right here already. Jews don’t need to become holy, they are holy.

For whatever reason, this critical fulcrum of avodah be-gashmiyut doesn’t seem to work anymore. From aish.com arguing for increased Jewish observance, to Chabad mivtzoim, which impute spritiual significance to only prescribed Jewish actions, avodah be-gashmiyut is out of fashion. The Siach Tzadikim itself ironically attests to this. With repeated animadversions against Zionism and constant references to its approval from the Satmar Rebbe, the message seems to be that these stories were ok for them, but not for us. Simple Jews could mess up the Haggadah. But having a gay seder or thinking about social justice doesn’t count as messing up– that’s just wrong. What Jews did wrong then was holy. What Jews do wrong now is irretrievably corrupted by modernity.

So where is the redeemer of Reform Jews yapping about Trayvon Martin during Maggid? Where is the Rebbe for folks who buy the Passover takeout that isn’t actually Kosher for Passover? To quote a long dead drunk guy:

All I know is that our ancestors were in exile and God redeemed them. Now we are also in exile, and God will redeem us too.

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